The 4-year-olds burst out into the play space, scattering like confetti as each sought out his favorite place and friends to share it with. The teacher, Ms. Angela, surveyed this happy scene. She noticed the bright sky and puffy clouds scudding across it. She thought, "What a great day for one of our favorite books, It Looked Like Split Milk!"

Pulling her sweater tighter against the fresh spring wind, she remembered last year's fours dashing around with crepe paper streamers. "We could really study wind and clouds today," she mused. She looked at her watch to see about fitting science into the day's schedule without cutting down on the children's prized outdoor free play.

The outdoors is a rich source of things to study, including weather, seasons, life cycles, sounds, physics, and the idea of change as a constant in life. Because there is so much information outdoors, children can sharpen their critical thinking skills by:

  • making observations
  • making connections
  • communicating their discoveries
  • evaluating those discoveries along with those of their peers.

These fundamentals of critical thinking offer children intrinsic satisfaction and provide the basis for later academic work. You need to be ready to take advantage of the outdoors as a place for children to make discoveries in a variety of areas-particularly in the areas of science and math. Think of your outdoor play space as a treasure trove of learning opportunities. Seek out the treasures and enjoy them!

"On the Spot" Learning

Ms. Angela wanted to capture the advantages of the day, while, at the same time, respecting children's reliance on routines. She brought out a bag of streamers and offered them to any takers. She encouraged children to observe how the streamers move in the wind. Later, she did some cloud watching herself, even sketching a few shapes and freely sharing her interpretations of the cloud patterns. Children welcomed these "teachable moment" activities because they were fresh and exciting - even to the teacher!

Look Up, Down, and All Around

Observation sets the foundation for critical thinking skills. As even the youngest children explore their environment, it's important to share their enthusiasm for the otherwise uninteresting little patch of pebbles or tom blossom. When you remember to see the world through the child's eyes, you become a first-rate guide.

Almost everything in the natural world, except the sun, can be looked at and studied. Earthworms, inchworms, ants, rocks, leaves, pinecones, and twigs are exceptionally interesting and accessible. Threes, fours, and lives love to make collections of interesting objects to observe and fill their pockets with. Be sure to take baggies along during outdoor play so that children can bring their "stuff" back to the classroom for further study.

Try these strategies to help children fine-tune their observation skills outdoors:

  • Make and use toilet tissue roll "binoculars" to focus a child's gaze. To make the binoculars, help children attach two empty rolls together, side by side. Attach a piece of string to the rolls so that children can wear them around their necks as they seek out interesting things to observe.
  • Place a hula-hoop on the grass. Invite children to lie down around the outside of the hoop and look closely at what is inside it. Can they see insects, acorns, interesting weeds?
  • Lay a foot of string across the grass. Ask each child to pretend to be a tiny creature hiking along it, looking for interesting things hiding among the blades of grass.
  • Provide magnifying glasses for scrutiny of plants and ants.
  • Offer small clipboards with either plain paper children can use to record their observations or paper illustrated with sketches of things to be found in the outdoor play space. Sketches might include a fence, stones, or a faucet.
  • Have a "touch" scavenger hunt. Encourage children to find something rough or smooth or cool or slippery to foster tactile observing.
  • Give children practice in audio observing by inviting them to sit very still with their eyes closed and listen as hard as possible. Ask them to share what they heard. For another listening observation, give children small sticks (perhaps chopsticks) and invite them to hit the slide, the climber; a fence, a wall, or a bucket and compare sounds.
  • Provide a tape measure that children can use to compare the heights of different plants, weeds, and grasses and the lengths of shadows they observe on pavement.
  • Point out the shadow of the climber captured at several intervals throughout a single day. This can stimulate questions about the positions of earth and sun.

Making Connections

Imagining shapes in clouds, as the book It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw (Harper Collins, 1993) reminds us to do, helps children make connections between what they already know and what they observe. Making connections is a vital part of the critical-thinking process. You can help children make important connections by drawing their attention to something outdoors-you might try pointing out a bird in a tree, asking children to listen to the sound of an ambulance in the distance, or suggesting they feel the seat of a swing warmed by the sun. Ask them questions such as, "Did you ever see (or feel or hear) something like this?" "Do you remember when we found the bird egg (or heard the fire engine siren or felt how warm the slide was)?"

Photographs of objects found outdoors, posted where children can discuss them, represent them with other materials, and integrate them into their own thinking, will also help children make important connections.

In addition to talking with children about connections and observations, you'll want to encourage them to draw, build, and perform what they think and know. "My leaves are falling!" sings a child, hands fluttering, showing off his newfound knowledge.

Evaluating Your Space as a Discovery Place

Look at your outdoor space from a child's perspective. Imagine you are 4 years old and know you are going to have some time outside. Now ask yourself:

  • What can I do here? Climb, slide, ride, run, rest, dig, watch the outside world, make music, chase, hide, balance?
  • Do I have enough room to do things without bumping into others?
  • Are there lots of choices arranged in a workable way?

Take notes on how children are using each activity area. Which area are children making the most use of? What kinds of interactions are happening there? What can you add to other areas to make them more inviting?

Remember, the best play spaces never stop evolving. For instance, a sandbox that children only run through will get more use if it is better placed or if you provide more interesting measuring and digging equipment. Photographs of your observations can help communicate your findings to others, including the children.

Moving the Outdoors Indoors

Almost everything children discover outdoors can be studied further indoors. Windy experiences outdoors can be translated inside to cause-and-effect thinking when children blow on objects to make them move. Have children dip pingpong balls in tempera paint, place them on paper, and blow through a straw placed near the ball to create a "wind-made" design. Use storebought or hand-made paper fans to create wind for cooling hot faces and drying wet hands.

Seasonal change can be a focus with a few branches of budding shrubs in a vase of water. Children can predict what will happen to the tiny buds. With any luck, in about two weeks there will be new leaves or flowers to exclaim over.

Children who enjoy the outdoor slide may find it fun to challenge cars in the block corner with very steep ramps-see how fast they go down! You can pose questions about making things go down faster or slower, introducing new variables. Some 5year-olds are quite thoughtful about what cars go fastest, examining wheels and making repeated trials, just as adult scientists do!

Planning Ahead

You can also extend the science and math curriculum you've begun indoors to the outdoors by carefully planning ahead. For example, starting a garden in the warm, June soil can be announced to the children inside, with the expectation that everyone will want to help at some point during outdoor time. You can prepare a gardening job chart with children and plan for follow-through observations and plant care. As they work outdoors, children can count how many seeds came up and measure how long the vines are now and at later points in the weeks to come. These activities provide practice with a wide array of math skills, while helping children gain important information about how plants grow over time.

You can also announce large-group activities to be held at the end of outdoor time, such as nature walks or scavenger hunts. When you return to the classroom, children can process what they learned, including further investigations of their findings, comparing and contrasting objects, and analyzing the environments that allowed the natural objects to thrive and grow.

You need to be ready to take advantage of the outdoors as a place for children to make discoveries in a variety of areas-particularly in the areas of science and math. Think of your outdoor play space as a treasure trove of learning opportunities. Seek out the treasures and enjoy them!

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Development of Thinking Skills (PDF)

Resources for Teachers

  • National Wildlife Federation, for Schoolyard Gardens and Nature Study (
  • Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University, for Design Ideas and Advocacy for Children Outdoors (
  • "Outdoor Experiences for Young Children" by Mary S. Rivkin, PhD ( )
  • Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell (Dawn Press, 1998)
  • "Water Play: A Key to Children's Living-Learning Environment" from NAEYC ( )